Continuity & Sci-Fi

Continuity & Sci-Fi July 11, 2006

Here’s a entertaining and wide-ranging essay ("The Science of Consistency:
On fictional universes and the fans who rationalize them"
by Todd Seavey) by a sci-fi buff about the challenge of maintaining continuity in science fiction and how inevitable such mistakes are in a fictional creation of any scale.

Shabana is periodically taken aback when I take great umbrage at some "minor" mistake on her part concerning the key narratives of sci-fi/fantasy–I’d share them, but they’re too painful to recount–so I can relate to this quip:

The fictional universes depicted in movies like the Star Wars or Star Trek series tend to get very complex (for beginners: the former features Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the latter Captain Kirk, the Enterprise, and a loyal crew made up of people like engineer Scotty; if you get them mixed up, you are worthless).

I wouldn’t go that far–I am a tolerant person, after all–but such mistakes clearly indicate that one has been out of touch for too long with the holy texts of the genre. 

The author also captures perfectly the different psychological import of continuity questions for the diehard fan and the average person:

That complexity means that—inevitably—the occasional “continuity error” occurs. In normal movie parlance, a continuity error means one of those embarrassing moments when, say, the bandage on an actor moves from the right hand to the left hand between scenes due to a mistake by the makeup department. For science fiction fans, though, continuity refers to the overall logical and historical coherence of our beloved fictional universes.

If Scotty witnesses Captain Kirk’s death at the beginning of Star Trek VII, it is extremely troubling to some of us—those who care, those who have intellectual integrity and the discipline of logic!—if Scotty is awakened from suspended animation approximately seventy years later in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and asks whether Captain Kirk is still alive. Scotty should know that Kirk isn’t! Something is wrong! It doesn’t add up—yet it must! It must!

There are many other gems of insight and deliciously nerdy examples of continuity objections, mostly concerning Star Wars and Star Trek.  Here’s an unexpected example from a different genre:

The TV show Dallas famously erased an entire season by claiming it had all been a dream (though they neglected to make changes in the spin-off show Knot’s Landing, on which characters briefly mourned for a Dallas character killed off during the erased “dream season”).

And here’s an interesting observation that explains the constant temptation in comics to trample on continuity:

there is a constant tension in comic books between the desire for the characters to accumulate interesting historical baggage and the desire to retell their basic, streamlined stories and this time get it right.

So it’s worth a read if you’re interested in such things. 

While we’re talking about continuity, here’s my own catch (and one that I haven’t seen anybody else mention, perhaps because it’s too trivial).

I think Star Trek Next Gen changed its approach to the reintroduction of the Romulans.

In a relatively early episode of STNG, Episode 26: "The Neutral Zone" (Boy, the web makes research easy sometimes.  All that took was a Google search under "’star trek next generation’ romulans reintroduction" to dig up the episode in question.), the Federation re-encounters the Romulans again after the treat ending a long war centuries earlier.   Without getting into the plot  (which you can see at the link provided), the interesting thing was that the way that Romulan bird of prey was portrayed as utterly dwarfing the Enterprise in size.  When it decloaked dramatically, it must have been 10 times larger.  I think that and the ominomous tone of the exchange between Picard and the Romulan captain clearly implied that the Romulans had outstripped the Federation in terms of technological development and that, consequently, the Federation was in trouble.  In subsequent episodes, however, birds of prey were normal sized and Romulans were otherwise portrayed as being on the same footing technologically as the Federation.  I detect a change in the geopolitical backdrop.

I welcome comments from fellow believers.  In sci-fi, not Islam.  (What do Avari-Nameh and Von Aurum think, I wonder?)

The essay got me wondering about what comparable continuity slips exist in the great universes of fantasy literature, especially that of JRR Tolkien.  Between the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, there must be a mountain of logical and historical contradictions.   Two decades ago when I subscribed to a mimeographed Tolkien fan zine–yes, I was a nerdy teen–I remember reading some examples, but can’t remember them now.  Anyone out there have any interesting examples of the Good Professor nodding?

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